My grandmother was able to make one last trip to visit our home, when I was in college. This was before Alzheimer’s Disease kept her, first, at home with a caretaker and, then, in a nursing facility. The hardworking farmer – who could cook for a crew, then don a pair of overalls over her dress to go out and feed the cattle – found the simplest of tasks increasingly confusing and tiring. The voracious reader was already past forgetting where her glasses were (on top of her head) and instead sometimes wondered what glasses were for. The woman – who had loved to warble all the songs of her youth – needed help recalling all the words. And the reliably pleasant, accommodating grandmother – whose harshest words were: “Oh, sugar!” – was moody, sometimes petulant and prone to fits of destructive anger.
One day during the visit, my mother took her mother out to run some errands. Gramma’s energy flagged quickly and my mother decided to duck into one last store on her own. When she came out, Gramma was slumped against the car door and appeared to be sleeping. She didn’t stir as my mother got into the car and didn’t respond to her name. My mother shook her and she still wouldn’t rouse. Alarmed, my mother drove to her own doctor, a few blocks away, and dashed inside. A nurse ran out. When she opened the car door, my grandmother slumped over. The nurse quickly checked vitals, then looked up and began to say, gently, “I’m sorry…”
At which moment, my grandmother sat up straight and crowed, “You thought I was dead, didn’t you?”
“What do people gain from all their toil?” my grandmother might have asked. “A generation goes and a generation comes. The people of long ago are not remembered. The people to come after will not be remembered by those yet to come. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
The Preacher who speaks in Ecclesiastes sighs that what we have done with our effort, leads – inevitably – to little. What we have worked at, what we have created with our love – even who we are – is doomed to perish. One translation reads: Fleeting, fleeting all is fleeting.
All but the most enthusiastic and optimistic of us can admit to days when we wonder if all is in vain. The Ecclesiastical Preacher suggests that if we do not wonder – we should. The Preacher wants us to notice that for all our planning and purpose there is nothing new under the sun. Inevitably, as the streams run to the sea, so our lives run to an end. As certain as the sun rises and sets, so one generation is replaced by another. Life is fleeting. It is vain to contend that we control the winds or the ways of our days.
If you need a prompt to confront the “unhappy business God has given to human kind” illness and aging will quickly bring your consideration into focus.
Ecclesiastes faces, head on, the existential questions raised by the passage of time, injuries, diseases, and care giving. What becomes of us when we can no longer do the work that was our livelihood? What is our purpose in life, when the smallest of tasks are heavy toil, only to be repeated once again? Who are we, when our intelligence and personality are altered? What is the purpose of life, if it leads inevitably to decay?
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes offers a simple and surprising answer. It often sounds like: “Eat, drink and be merry.” Three times over The Preacher extemporizes on the value of living in the present and enjoying the small – but substantial – blessings of this life. “This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.”
The cure for despair and hopelessness is resting in the desire of God for all humans to find joy precisely in this life.
Perhaps we are most open to the message of Ecclesiastes’ sermon when we are disabled by disease, when dementia clouds a mind, when depression narrows our focus, or when we are simply worn out by the monotony of our days.
Then we may be willing to hear that our true worth is not grounded in what we do, the work we offer, not even the unique aspects of our personality. Our true value is that we have been created by an awesome God. We can trust God and only God to work out the purpose of our lives.
As certainly as the rivers run to the see, do our lives run to our Maker. But, that is not an ending. It is a beginning. And along the way, we are offered the opportunity to delight in the simple goodness of that God has made us, to walk with one another, to eat together and to be glad when we are able.
Later on in the day that my grandmother considered her death and its impact on her loved ones, we went for a family walk. My grandmother had loved to walk the roads near the family farm and was still strong in her body. We headed out – Gramma, my mother and father, my sister and I.
We had gotten perhaps half a mile from our house, when Gramma decided she didn’t want to walk any more, or perhaps really couldn’t remember how for that time. She sat down on the street and refused to move. My sister and I finally picked her up, one on each arm, and we began to sing, counting on the music and movement to press Gramma on. “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion”, we sang.
By now, my father – embarrassed by the whole scene – had stalked off around a corner, pretending he didn’t know us. Every now and then Gramma would catch the beat and take a step. But to be honest, most of the time we just sort of lifted her up off the ground and transported her.
We were doing ok, until my father reappeared to check how we were doing. Gramma caught sight of him, and – for whatever reason – she didn’t call him “sugar”. She called him names Gramma must have learned from farm hands.
Daddy disappeared again and the four of us continued marching, singing and dragging our way home.
Back home, four of us were worn out, distressed, confused, and disheartened. Gramma sat down, looked around, smiled at us and proclaimed, “My, that was a lovely walk.”
In the midst of a life that is filled with routine, dissatisfaction, sorrow and pain, we can see small glimmers of God’s grace. Despair casts a veil over our eyes, blinding us to the brilliance of the holiness of creation. The momentary joys and blessings of this life are pinpricks of light in the veil. We live not in meaningless despair, but in hope for the day when that light shines brilliantly on all.
Fleeting, fleeting, all is fleeting, but what a wonderful walk it is that we are on.